[This was preached at Boone’s Creek Baptist Church, Lexington, KY. You can listen to the mp3 here.]
When I first came into the ministry, I remember my mentor (Pastor Chris) telling me something that used to happen quit often among his friends. Each Wednesday, he and his friends would go out to the local Pizza Hut for pizza. One of these men had a certain trick he would do when the pizza arrive. He would spot the biggest piece of the pie—and spit on it! You heard me correctly! This went on for weeks.
One day, one of them had an idea. They went to the Pizza Hut again. Again the pizza came. Again, this man marked his territory and said, “Dibs on that one!” To his surprise, another one at the table spit on that same piece of pizza and said, “It’s all yours!”
There is something in human nature that wants to have what we want when we want it—to have the biggest slice of the pie, to get there first, to be the best. No matter how well our intentions or how well we may tell ourselves and others the contrary, we have to fight our human nature to be #1.
That’s why we need to pray for our church to have servant leaders. To many in our world, those seem like opposites. You can’t be a servant and be a leader—and you can’t be a leader if you’re a servant. Someone forgot to notify Jesus of this when he told his disciples this:
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).
Those whom God has placed in leadership in the church must recognize they are called to be servants in the church. It’s not about position, it’s about a passion for God and His people. It’s about a passion for the gospel, for Jesus gave His life as a ransom for many, leading the way in service.
The coming two Sundays, our congregation has agreed to and has codified this in our Constitution and By-Laws to nominate men to serve as deacons. These are men who have already been demonstrating service—in fact, the word ‘deacon’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘servant’ and this word is used in other places as a key attribute to Christian living. These men must members at our church for three years or more, and abide by the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3:8-13 (which I will read through later). But the first ‘deacons’ came about here in Acts 6 that arose out of a practical need. Let read about that need and how they responded:
6:1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Servant leaders in the church meet the physical and spiritual needs of God’s people!
The Problem: The Need That Arose
The disciples had an interesting issue that many of us would love to face: they were “increasing in number” (v. 1). That’s good! The power of the Word of God as reinforced by signs and wonders were drawing many in to saving faith in Jesus Christ. They were turning from their sins and turning to the only true Savior! They had been marked by unity, being of one accord.
But a practical, physical need arose that threatened this unity. This is the first issue to arise on a large scale within the Christian community. “ … a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1b).
Some wrongly say that complaining is bad. Some complaining is bad, when it comes from a selfish motive. That was not the case here. It’s important for leaders to sift through the complaining and prioritize. Some leaders dismiss any complaints, and thus isolate their people. Some leaders listen to every single complaint as if it’s all of equally valid, and thus lack discernment and fail to lead. One person can hijack the entire thing!
The apostles were wise, discerning, and Spirit-filled leaders! They heard the complaint, saw that it was necessary to address that issue immediately. In the process, something wonderful arose that would show the nature of the church of Jesus Christ!
Yet, there are three ways to deal with a complaint! To be clear, I don’t have any particular episode in mind, just some general reflections from 20 years of ministry and 40 years (come October) of living.
Ignore it. Just don’t address it at all. Say to yourself that any complainer must be carnal and move on to those who don’t complain because non-complainers are Spirit-filled and love Jesus. That’s not only bad leadership, that just plain silly. (Of course, one has to take into consideration if this is coming from a Son-of-Diotrephes effect, of which Joe McKeever deals with beautifully.)
Internalize it. Here is the polar opposite of ignoring it. Take every complaint to heart, because regardless of what happens at a church or any business, if you’re the leader, it’s always a reflection on you and therefore your fault. Another way to internalize it is personally: every complaint you hear is equally valid. One complaint about a program or a direction in the church grinds everything to a halt. This is especially true if the aim of the church is to make everyone happy, forgetting that the aim of the church is to glorify God and produce Christ-like, Spirit-filled disciples.
Investigate it. Yes! This one! No blanket categorizing need apply here! See the nature of the complaint—it may teach you something! I shudder at times when I have not listened to a complaint when I should have! Sort through the complaint and see if it’s just a personal preference or if it’s a significant issue that could effect the spiritual direction of the body of Christ. This is what the apostles did—and what we as leaders must do! What did they do?
First, they saw the need to take care of the widows. With widows in that culture, when their husbands died, by virtue of the men being the ones who provided the livelihood and by virture of them being old and being women—they did not have much of a place in that society. They were overlooked and were outcast. As we saw from Luke 18 with the persistent widow and how she continually asked that judge for justice until he finally wore her down. Judges didn’t help those who couldn’t provide some benefit to them.
Secondly, they saw that more than one group of people would make up the body of Christ. Consider that the “Hellenists” were involved. On my first trip to Trinidad while in seminary, we spent two weeks doing music missions. One week was in San Fernando, much like where we have gone as a church. The second week was in the city in Port of Spain—one of the more difficult weeks I’ve had doing missions. It was Saturday and we were in the city. We had split up our team of about five or six to go and do some shopping, but we were to meet around 2 at the church. Within 10 minutes, I found myself alone in downtown Port of Spain in a country I’d never been in having a hard time understanding the Trinidadian/Caribbean English. So you know what I did?
I went to McDonald’s. Why? Two reasons: one, it was familiar, even if the meat there was a little suspect. And two, I knew that I would see another white face from our team soon. Within 15 minutes I did.
You see, these Hellenistic widow had a double whammy in their lives. They were widows, and they spoke a different language than did the Apostles who spoke both Hebrew and Aramaic. By nature, we gravitate toward those who share our language, our speaking habits, our slang, and our cultural tendencies. They may not have intended to exclude them, but one can understand how this happened.
The Solution: Servant Leaders Serving Differently
“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering” (Acts 6:3-4a).
Here we see something beautiful. We see the leadership of the apostles who had a clear understanding of their calling! Their calling was ‘prayer and … the ministry of the word.” Please understand, this is not saying that this is all that church leaders do. But with pastors, this is the primary calling! Not the only thing pastors are to do, but the primary task!
Also, notice that these seven men had their calling as well—to take care of the physical duties of the members of the church. This was their ministry. Their calling!
But understand something: the ministry and service of these seven men in waiting tables and making sure the widows were fed; and the word ‘ministry’ of the word both come from the same root in the Greek. Both serve! Both minister! Both sought the glory of God, both sought to strengthen the people of God, both sought to share the gospel of God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Yet both serve in different ways. The apostles serve as the overseers and leaders of the church, the undershepherds of the church of Christ. The deacons serve as servants to the physical needs of the church.
Consider the story of Jethro and Moses in Exodus 18.
13 The next day Moses sat to judge the people, and the people stood around Moses from morning till evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” 15 And Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God; 16 when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” 17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing is not good. 18 You and the people with you will certainly wear yourselves out, for the thing is too heavy for you. You are not able to do it alone. 19 Now obey my voice; I will give you advice, and God be with you! You shall represent the people before God and bring their cases to God, 20 and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do. 21 Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 22 And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23 If you do this, God will direct you, you will be able to endure, and all this people also will go to their place in peace.”
24 So Moses listened to the voice of his father-in-law and did all that he had said. 25 Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. 26 And they judged the people at all times. Any hard case they brought to Moses, but any small matter they decided themselves. 27 Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went away to his own country.
No doubt this parallels and influenced how the disciples felt and structured how they dealt with these issues. These men were ones who had already shown their faithfulness. Just Jethro advised Moses to look for men who fear God.
Dear friends, when you nominate a deacon, look for one already faithful in service. Read 1 Timothy 3:8-13. Look at their faithfulness to the Word of God, their faithfulness to service of the church, their dignity, see how they manage their household and whether they exert spiritual authority in service to their families. Look at their wives, because the wives are not only along for the ride but are key in ministry. A spiritual maturity is needed on both the husbands and the wives. Pray they are ones who tithe, for how hypocritical would that be if a deacon would use money tithed to the Lord’s service and have a say-so in how it was spent, and yet didn’t contribute to that storehouse tithe to begin with! Don’t look at how well they do the business of the world (although that can help), look at how well they do the business of the Kingdom. Because mark my word, if a deacon is nominated and voted upon based upon popularity rather than service already demonstrated, his nomination and election will not change his level of service, it will only reinforce what is already there.
His name is Bill. He has wild hair, wears a T-shirt with holes in it, jeans and no shoes. This was literally his wardrobe for his entire four years of college. He is intelligent. Kind of esoteric and very, very bright.
He became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus is a well-dressed, very conservative church. They want to develop a ministry to the students, but are not sure how to go about it.
One day Bill decides to go there. He walks in with no shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair. The service has already started, so Bill starts down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed and he can’t find a seat. By now people are really looking a bit uncomfortable, but no one says anything. Bill gets closer to the pulpit, and when he realizes there are no seats, he just squats down right on the carpet. (Although perfectly acceptable behavior at a college fellowship, this had never happened in this church before!)
By now the people are really uptight, and the tension in the air is thick.
About this time, the minister realizes that from way at the back of the church, a deacon is slowly making his way toward Bill. Now the deacon is in his eighties, has silver-gray hair, and a three-piece suit. A godly man, very elegant, very dignified, very courtly. He walks with a cane and, as he starts walking toward this young man, everyone is saying to themselves that you can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and of his background to understand some college kid on the floor?
It takes a long time for the deacon to reach the young man. What would he do? He walked up to the young man, and sat down beside him. He introduced himself and let him know that he wouldn’t be sitting alone.
This right here is an example of taking one’s theology out for a test drive. We can be as conservative and Bible-believing as possible, but if we’re not using this to serve others, then no one will know or care about our beliefs.
We need servant leaders. Pray for the leaders of your church!